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Reviews

02 Sep 2019

Prom 53: Elgar’s emotionally charged Music Makers

British music with an English and strong European accent marked this Prom featuring three well-wrought works, stylistically worlds apart but each characterised by a highly individual musical personality.

Prom 53: An evening of English music from Sir Andrew Davies and the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

A review by David Truslove

Above: Dame Sarah Connolly

Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

 

The thematic link between Vaughan Williams’sFantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Hugh Wood’s Scenes from Comus might be simply reduced to sonority - a fascinating juxtaposition of seamlessly interwoven string forces in one, and an electrifying alchemy of ever-shifting full orchestral timbres in the other, their differences adroitly delineated by Sir Andrew Davis in readings of warmth and precision.

The Fantasia began out of nowhere, wonderfully svelte with Davis sculpting the air and fashioning handsome playing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra that encompassed majesty and mystery. Its muted smaller ensemble at the rear of the stage was daringly quiet but flawlessly integrated into the bigger picture - everything detail glowing with affection as if the players were shaking hands with a much-loved friend. One could almost imagine we were in the sacred space of Gloucester Cathedral where the work was first performed and where its organist once described Vaughan Williams as “a queer, mad fellow from Chelsea”.

A similar sense of intensity and nobility emerged from Hugh Wood’s Scenes from Comus. It’s part-cantata and part-orchestral tone poem with vocal soloists, setting passages from John Milton’s 1634 Masque. Its first appearance at the Proms in 1965 brought the composer valuable exposure and wide public acclaim. This captivating account was launched by Martin Owen’s fluent horn solo - the work’s opening tone row indicative of much that was to follow in a score embracing serialism yet revealing an expressionistic lyrical strain embedded in a Romantic sensibility. While Schoenberg was a major stimulus, other influences come into play most notably in an extended orchestral episode evoking the monstrous Comus (son of the witch Circe) who invites his followers to join “a light fantastic round”. It’s a tour de force of orchestral writing to which the orchestra responded with magnificent playing, conjuring its orgiastic dance with fierce commitment and evident enjoyment. There was much to enjoy too from soprano Stacey Tappan and tenor Anthony Gregory whose clear voices and fluent traversal of the work’s demands made them ideal advocates, even if on occasion the sheer weight of orchestral sound pitted against them was not to their advantage.

Stacey Tappan Chris Christodoulou_ (5).jpgStacey Tappan. Photo credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou.

Where Scenes from Comus arises from the beginning of Wood’s musically creative outpouring, The Music Makers (1912) was to be one of Elgar’s last works for choir and orchestra and has been unjustly overlooked. Setting Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s Ode for a contralto soloist, it’s sometimes regarded as a problematic work in that the newly composed themes rarely achieve the same memorable status as the patchwork of quotations (most notably drawn from the ‘Enigma’ Variations) and, arguably, suggests a diminishing imagination. Critical assessment has not been helped by Elgar’s biographer Diana McVeigh’s patronising comment on The Music Makers as being a “pleasant work to sing but not quite so satisfying to listen to”.

While O’Shaughnessy’s fanciful text is not always rewarding (“With wonderful deathless ditties we build up the world’s great cities” being especially lame), this scrupulously prepared performance with the BBC Symphony Chorus and a radiant Dame Sarah Connolly made a compelling case for this cantata. The opening lines “We are the music-makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams” were sung with a rapt beauty and conveyed with deep involvement. True, the pianissimo marking was ignored (not so on the superb Chandos recording) but the words were clearly enunciated and shaped. Thereafter, Davis drove the score forward, rarely allowing its momentum to falter and seamlessly interrogating tempo variations, shaping its paragraphs with assurance and building from “for we fashion an empire’s glory” to a grandiose climax. Connolly imposed with warmly expressive tone, and if the upper register didn’t quite have same easy control and richness as her voice below the stave, she sang with a total immersion in the text that compels attention. Nowhere was her singing so poignant as the closing lines; “And a singer who sings no more” - its emotional charge shattering.

David Truslove

Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo), Stacey Tappan (soprano), Anthony Gregory (tenor), Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Chorus

Royal Albert Hall, London; Thursday 29th August 2019.

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